Monday, November 14, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: A Fall Film Harvest


This current, fallow period between the big summer movies and the holiday/awards season has given me a long overdue opportunity to catch up on some recent releases I missed.  Once I watched them all, it took me another two weeks to find time to write about them!  Such is my crazy busy life.  Fortunately for our readers, most are now available on home video or VOD, including a bevy of unusually high-quality gay themed flicks.

Star Trek Beyond (now available to own on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital HD) is one would-be blockbuster I couldn't quite get to in July.  Apparently, neither did a lot of other people.  This is a shame, because it is certainly a funnier, more enjoyable entry in the long-running sci fi series than either of its immediate two predecessors.  J.J. Abrams, who directed Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, serves as producer on the latest but handed over the director reins to Justin Lin of Fast & Furious fame. Lin proves to have been a great pick and Beyond is, well, faster and furious-er as a result.

Also elevating the new sequel is a more tongue-in-cheek screenplay written by Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty in the rebooted series, and Doug Jung.  Their plot involves an insect-like villain, Krall (Idris Elba, unrecognizable until the film's finale), who is out for revenge against the Federation and has a nasty weapon at his disposal.  Once Krall forces the Enterprise to crash on his planet, the surviving crew members join forces with Jaylah, a fierce female alien who has her own score to settle against the big nasty guy.

Star Trek Beyond features a serious story to be sure, but also has more comedic and welcome interplay among the lead characters.  It is also revealed at long last that Lieutenant Sulu (John Cho) is gay, as something of an homage to gay actor and activist George Takei, the original Sulu.  Sofia Boutella's Jaylah is a terrific addition to the cast and appears set to continue in any further adventures. Unfortunately, that seems less guaranteed since the new film was something of a disappointment at the box office even though the next announced entry is supposed to involve Kirk's father.  As we all know, Star Trek can never be counted out entirely.

The sequel I was most looking forward to and actually did see in theaters but didn't get a chance to review was Independence Day: Resurgence.  This 20 years later effort definitely wasn't needed (and subsequently failed to set the box office on fire too) but is a well-constructed and thoroughly entertaining follow up boasting excellent special effects.

While Resurgence's lead characters are a bunch of 20-something newcomers, Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, Bill Pullman and Brent Spiner return in addition to the late Robert Loggia in a brief cameo. Goldblum and Hirsch are once again hilarious together, and Spiner's mad scientist comes out of the closet.  The planet-harvesting aliens are evil as ever as they re-invade in a spaceship big enough to straddle the entire Atlantic Ocean.  Their all-powerful queen faces off against the humans in a thrilling climax that leaves the door open for another sequel.  I really hope out director Roland Emmerich and his cast re-unite one more time to fulfill the desire of Spiner's character to "kick some alien ass"!

I also saw and even reviewed here July's all-female remake of Ghostbusters.  Like most, I was somewhat disappointed by it even as I liked Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones as the new crew. An extended edition of the supernatural comedy now out on Blu-ray is something of an improvement.  The original version itself turns out to be funnier on second viewing, while additional scenes that give Wiig's research scientist a romance develop her character more plus allow Wiig to do more funny stuff.  Most critically, one new scene provides a bit of needed lightness to Neil Casey's ghost-controlling villain, a bullied young man who was handled way too seriously in the theatrical edition.  Whether for the first or second time, I recommend "answering the call" and checking out the 2016 Ghostbusters extended cut.

It's hard to believe that 2016 marks the 40th anniversary of Brian DePalma's screen adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie.  Regarded as a landmark of the horror genre pretty much since 1976, it has been released on Blu-ray for the first time by Shout Factory.  Both Sissy Spacek, as the title character, and Piper Laurie as her psychotic religious-fanatic mother were nominated for that year's Academy Awards, pretty rare for performances in a low-budget thriller.

Carrie's hi-def transfer, while great, also highlights a couple of the movie's weaknesses.  One is the inconsistency of the supporting performances.  Spacek remains a fresh-faced revelation but Laurie comes across as more comical than ever (Laurie has stated in the past that she thought the film was a comedy until DePalma told her otherwise midway through shooting).  Nancy Allen, playing Carrie's chief high school nemesis, also seems to swing between camp and horror.  Betty Buckley remains solid as Carrie's understanding gym teacher.  Another deficiency is DePalma's split-screen depiction of the prom-set climax.  Though technically impressive at the time, it comes across as excessive and heavy-handed today.  Stronger by today's standards is the movie's pro-feminist message, which I'm not sure was even noticed at the time of its original release.  Carrie discovers her psychic powers as she comes of age as an independent woman, and she duly punishes all the men (and most of the women) she perceives as having done her wrong.  I'm not sure if Gloria Steinem approved then but Carrie is worth re-examining from this perspective 40 years later.

2016 is proving to be a great year for gay-themed films, with current theatrical release Moonlight being consistently mentioned as a potential Oscar contender.  While I haven't caught that one yet, here are several other new home video/VOD releases deserving of attention:

King Cobra relates the lurid but intriguing true story of how young gay porn star Brent Corrigan (born Sean Paul Lockhart) crossed paths with two unsavory producers and subsequently found himself embroiled in a murder case.  Christian Slater and James Franco turn in revelatory performances as the entrepreneurs fighting to control Corrigan's career, with former Disney Channel star Garrett Clayton appropriately fetching as Corrigan/Lockhart.  Writer-director Justin Kelly's script doesn't provide much in terms of characters' background or motivations other than those old mainstays, fame and fortune.  Still, I would call King Cobra a must-see for all connoisseurs of Corrigan's body... of work, that is.

Fire Song, now available from Wolfe Video, is significant for being the first gay storyline involving Anishinaabe (or First Nation) characters and actors.  Set in rural Ontario, Canada, it focuses on two young men, Shane and David, struggling to keep their relationship both secret and alive amidst numerous challenges and temptations.  Shane is preparing to move to the city and attend college, while David serves as one of their tribe's leaders.  The tribe's matriarch, who also happens to be David's grandmother, is disapproving of same-sex relations but doesn't realize one is going on under her nose and roof.

Canadian filmmaker Adam Garnet Jones gets points for exploring gay life within a too often ignored community.  His mostly non-professional cast members give mixed performances with a few downright amateurish, although Andrew Martin makes an impression as Shane and will hopefully be hired onto bigger projects in the future.  Fire Song may not offer much that is new apart from its setting but this alone is sufficient reason to recommend it.

Confessions (TLA Releasing) is a new compendium of short films by gay filmmaker Mark Bessenger (The Last Straight Man).  True to the title, each of the ten stories is relayed directly to the camera by their protagonists. Among the cast are such recognizable out actors as Dylan Vox, Mark Cirillo and David Pevsner, the latter of whom is very funny as a doctor who only treats name Hollywood actors.  Some of Bessenger's tales are comic, some romantic and some dramatic.  The most disturbing of them is actually the best, a mini horror movie about a man who takes vengeance on the fellow student who bullied him in high school for being gay.  Plenty of flesh is on display throughout although Bessenger and his cast shy away from full frontal nudity.

Finally, and just in time for the holiday season, is Rob Williams' award-winning Shared Rooms (Wolfe).  Williams previously made the Christmas-themed charmer Make the Yuletide Gay in addition to such films as Role/Play, Back Soon and Long-Term Relationship.  Whereas Williams has been a consistently good writer, his past productions have sometimes suffered from weak actors/performances.  Happily, Shared Rooms is his strongest film to date both in terms of its screenplay and its cast.  Between these factors and the plentiful full frontal nudity on display, Shared Rooms will warm your heart and more during cold winter nights.

Reverend's Ratings:
Star Trek Beyond: B
Independence Day: Resurgence: B+
Ghostbusters: Extended Edition: B
Carrie: Collector's Edition: B
King Cobra: B-
Fire Song: B+
Confessions: B-
Shared Rooms: B

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.